In Bastar, a group of lawyers try to bring law to a lawless region

October 07, 2015 08:50 pm | Updated 08:50 pm IST - JAGDALPUR (BASTAR):

Hirme Kawai, 50, a tribal from Jemer village in Sukma district of Bastar was detained by the police last year when he and other villagers surrounded the Kukanar police station to protest the illegal detention of a tribal woman by the district police.

“My friend Ramaji Madavi and neighbour Budra Kodiyami were also detained. They [the police] accused us of being Maoist supporters and beat us badly. We were then sent to the Dantewada jail,” recalled Hirme Kawasi.

A small-time farmer, Hirme Kawasi had little hope that he would come out early as he had no money to fight long legal battles in Bastar district courts. Then he was informed that a group of lawyers from Jagdalpur had come to his rescue and secured his release without charging fees.

The Jagdalpur Legal Aid Group, known as ‘JagLAG’, came into existence in July 2013 as the result of brainstorming of human rights activists, academics and lawyers in New Delhi and Chhattisgarh, who wanted to provide legal help to the people of Bastar caught in the vicious conflict between security forces and the Maoists.

Four lawyers Isha Khandelwal, 26, Parijata Bharadwaj, 26, Rupesh Kumar, 28, and Shalini Gera, 53, came to Jagdalpur, the district headquarters of Bastar, in July 2013 and established JagLAG. “When Soni Sori’s case came up in Delhi, everyone who was involved in issues here [Bastar] realised that these issues could not be sorted out by sitting in Delhi. They realised that something extremely wrong was happening here,” said Ms. Khandelwal, who comes from Nimaj, a small town in Madhya Pradesh, and studied in Delhi.

Guneet Kaur, 26, joined the group after a few months. “They [JagLAG] are godsend. I would have been languishing in Dantewada jail even today, had they not come to my defence. More such people are needed here,” said Hirme Kawasi.

After beginning work, the group realised that there was no culture of bail in Bastar courts. “Bail is impossible here if it’s a Naxal-related case or even a murder. Don’t even ask for it. Even the lawyers here had stopped filing for bail. We began by pushing for bail,” Ms. Khandelwal said.

Initially, the people did not know about the group; but with Soni Sori coming out of jail, they started going to the group for legal help through her. The group managed to bail out local tribals in some cases in Sukma district and the word on its work started spreading in the entire Bastar region.

“Now, we have our own network and people trust us. The police do try to persuade people against taking our help, but they come to us. Chhattisgarh has the highest rate of overcrowding in jails in the country, but it is worse in Bastar. In Kanker, a jail that can take in 65, had more than 600 people stashed in it. The Dantewada jail has more than 500 people against its capacity of 150. This shows trials are taking too long. People are going to jail but not coming out. Most of them are in jail as under-trial prisoners and not as convicts,” Ms. Khandelwal said.

Guneet Kaur, Parijata Bharadwaj and Rupesh Kumar left the group a few months ago to pursue their careers and now only Mr. Gera and Ms. Khandelwal are left. “The aim of this group is to provide people with legal help. Individuals like me come and go, but the idea is to keep this effort alive. I hope this group survives, no matter I am here or not,” Ms. Khandelwal said.

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